California’s Legal Options for Sexual Abuse Survivors

The California Child Victims Act expands the rights of those who are ready to take legal action against abuse perpetrators and others.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

California is one of a number of states that have taken special steps to protect the legal options of survivors of childhood sexual abuse and assault.

Thanks to the California Child Victims Act (also known as Assembly Bill 218 or AB 218), signed into law in October 2019, survivors now have more rights when it comes to filing a civil lawsuit against their abusers, and the businesses and institutions that failed to protect them from the abuse.

In this article, we'll explain the key provisions of the California Child Victims Act, including:

  • changes to the statute of limitations lawsuit-filing timeline for childhood sexual abuse lawsuits
  • enhanced "damages" rules for childhood sexual abuse/assault lawsuits that involve "cover up" conduct by a defendant
  • a procedural hurdle that certain potential plaintiffs (and their attorneys) must clear, and
  • a "lookback window" (now closed) that revived survivors' right to sue.

California's Statute of Limitations for Childhood Sexual Assault Lawsuits

In the context of a civil court case, a "statute of limitations" is a law that puts a time limit on the right to file a lawsuit. If you miss the statute of limitations deadline, the court will almost certainly refuse to consider your case, unless a rare exception applies to effectively extend the deadline.

When figuring out the statute of limitations time limit that might apply to a lawsuit over childhood sexual assault in California, the key factor is when the underlying assault took place.

If Sexual Assault Occurred In Or After 2024

There is no time limit for filing a California lawsuit over child sexual assault that occurred on or after January 1, 2024. According to California Code of Civil Procedure section 340.1, that means a survivor of abuse doesn't need to worry about a filing deadline of any kind when it comes to a civil lawsuit against:

  • the person who committed the sexual assault
  • a person or entity that owed a "duty of care" to the assault victim, and whose negligence played a part in causing the assault to happen (more about this "duty of care" below), and
  • a person or entity whose intentional act (i.e. covering up prior incidents) played a part in causing the assault to happen.

If Sexual Assault Occurred Before 2024

The time limit for filing a lawsuit over childhood sexual assault that occurred prior to 2024 is the latter of:

  • the date the plaintiff turns 40 years old, or
  • within 5 years of discovering that any psychological harm suffered after the plaintiff turned 18 was caused by sexual assault.

Learn more about filing a lawsuit over abuse that happened a long time ago.

Expanding the "Abuse" Definition and the "Duty of Care"

The California Child Victims Act changes the definition of "childhood sexual abuse" to "childhood sexual assault," and clearly outlines the potential civil liability of an entity that owed a "duty of care" to the plaintiff.

This is the portion of the law that spells out an entity's legal responsibility to protect minors from abuse, and which can be used to hold churches, schools, care centers, and other institutions and organizations liable for the wrongdoing of clergy, employees, volunteers, and others.

Specifically, the new law defines "sexual assault" as any act committed against plaintiffs when they were under 18, and which would have been labeled as a criminal act under most relevant sections of the California Penal Code. That includes:

  • physical acts of sexual abuse
  • "lewd and lascivious" acts involving a child under the age of 14, and
  • child pornography-related offenses.

The California Child Victims Act also places institutions and organizations on the legal hook when they:

  • know, have reason to know, or are on notice of any misconduct creating a risk that an employee or other "agent" will commit sexual assault against a child, and
  • fail to take reasonable steps (or to implement reasonable safeguards) to prevent acts of sexual assault against a child.

Notably, AB 218 requires more than just minimal action from these institutions when it comes to these "reasonable steps" and "safeguards" aimed at preventing or avoiding incidents of sexual assault by employees and other representatives who work with or around children.

The law specifies that "providing or requiring counseling is not sufficient, in and of itself, to constitute a reasonable step or reasonable safeguard." These organizations should do more, and now the law requires them to do more.

A "Cover Up" Can Triple a Survivor's "Damages"

If a defendant in a childhood sexual abuse lawsuit is found to have engaged in any sort of "cover up" behavior in connection with the survivor's harm, that defendant can be liable for "treble" damages.

That means the defendant (whether an individual or institution) could be ordered to pay three times the compensatory damages that resulted from its role in causing or contributing to the abuse. These damages can include:

  • the cost of the survivor's health care treatment and counseling made necessary by the abuse
  • the financial impact of the survivor's inability to work, and
  • the survivor's "pain and suffering" and other subjective impacts of the abuse.

The California Child Victims Act defines a "cover up" very broadly, describing it as any "concerted effort to hide evidence relating to childhood sexual assault."

So that means if a church, school, care center, or some other organization engaged in any purposeful action meant to conceal the abuse—including trying to discourage an accuser from coming forward, or failing to fulfill a legal requirement to report any instance of abuse—a survivor might be entitled to recover three times the amount of their compensable losses resulting from that defendant's failure to fulfill its legal (let alone moral) obligations.

The "Certificate of Merit" Requirement Adds a Hurdle for Plaintiffs

While AB 218 is mostly plaintiff-friendly, it also creates a procedural hurdle for a childhood sexual abuse lawsuit to clear if the plaintiff is 40 years of age or older. In that situation, alongside the complaint (that's the document that starts the lawsuit and spells out the plaintiff's allegations), a "certificate of merit" must be filed. In this document:

  • the plaintiff's attorney must say, under oath, that the attorney has reviewed the facts of the case, has consulted with at least one qualified mental health practitioner, and "concluded on the basis of that review and consultation" that the plaintiff's child sexual assault lawsuit is "meritorious," and
  • a licensed mental health practitioner (who has never treated the plaintiff) must declare, also under oath, that the practitioner has interviewed the plaintiff and formulated a professional opinion that "there is a reasonable basis to believe that the plaintiff had been subject to childhood sexual abuse."

If filing the certificate of merit would be unreasonable because the statute of limitations is running soon, then the plaintiff's attorney must make a sworn declaration saying so, and a compliant certificate of merit must be filed within 60 days of the filing of the lawsuit.

California's "Lookback Window" for Childhood Sexual Abuse Lawsuits Is Now Closed

AB 218 created a so-called "lookback window," which revived the lawsuit-filing rights of many childhood sexual abuse survivors who were barred from seeking compensation for abuse-related harm because of the statute of limitations. The three-year window opened on January 1, 2020, and closed on January 1, 2023.

This was the second such action by California lawmakers. The first "lookback window" opened for a one-year period back in 2003, and resulted in the filing of around 1,000 sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic church and other institutions.

What About Government Liability for Childhood Sexual Abuse?

When a government entity or employee might be liable for a potential plaintiff's harm in California, state law typically requires adherence to a separate claim procedure set out in the California Tort Claims Act, which has stricter filing deadlines than the typical civil court process.

The California Child Victims Act ensures that a survivor's options for seeking justice for childhood sexual abuse aren't restricted by the California Tort Claims Act's deadlines, by mandating that the civil statute of limitations will apply even when legal responsibility for harm from sexual assault lies with a government agency (for example, a school district).

What About Criminal Cases Over Childhood Sexual Abuse in California?

The statute of limitations rules we've discussed here only apply to civil lawsuits brought by survivors of childhood sexual abuse and assault. A different statute of limitations applies to criminal proceedings, which are entirely separate from the civil lawsuit process, even when the same conduct or set of circumstances is the basis for both types of legal action.

In California, a number of different criminal statutes of limitations might apply to an incident of child sexual abuse or assault. For example, for some crimes (including aggravated sexual assault of a minor), no statute of limitations applies, meaning criminal charges may be brought at any time, even decades after the offense.

In other cases, prosecution is possible until the survivor turns 40 years of age, but a stricter deadline might apply depending on what specific crime is charged. Get more details on pressing criminal charges over childhood sexual abuse, and California statutes of limitations for criminal law cases.

Resources for California Sexual Abuse Survivors

You can read the full text of AB218 here (from the California legislature), and for details on the spectrum of help available to sexual abuse survivors, check out our guide to Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse.

If you're interested in learning more about AB 218 and how it might affect your options for seeking justice over childhood sexual abuse, talk to a lawyer. Learn more about finding the right attorney for you, and how a lawyer can help.

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